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Camden’s ‘Renaissance Schools’ Takeover Plans May Face Legal Challenge

Attorneys for Education Law Center say restructuring moves may violate state law

kipp school camden
Latin Kings graffiti adorns the wall of a building near the new KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy now under construction in Camden.

Plans for sweeping restructuring of state-run Camden school district, including turning over four schools to charter operators, faced its first open challenge yesterday when lawyers contended that the moves violated state law and regulations on several fronts.

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group, released a statement that said the plans failed to meet both the letter and spirit of the Urban Hope Act, the 2012 law that cleared the way for the charter-operated “renaissance schools.”

It is these “renaissance school” projects that would expand under the reorganization plan announced by Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard last month.

Four schools would be turned over to Mastery Charter Schools and Uncommon Schools, and a fifth school would be closed outright, with most of its students attending the new KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy now under construction.

The ELC contended that the Urban Hope Act was never intended to have existing schools handed over to the charter operators.

The group said the plans also violate the state’s own procedures, under which the targeted school are already operating under improvement plans that preclude such charter conversions.

“Once again, there has been really no public process here,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. “The superintendent doesn’t put anything out, doesn’t even post the applications, and he provides no opportunity to have any public input in this.”

Sciarra wouldn’t yet commit to a formal legal challenge, noting that the plans still require final approval from the Christie administration.

“I don’t want to get into that at this point,” he said last night.

Rouhanifard’s office rejected the claim that public input had not been sought or even that the changes could even be defined as conversions. It said that the schools are actually being closed and reopened under the new management, including “substantial reconstruction” of the buildings, as allowed under the law.

That might have been semantics but it was, perhaps, a critical legal distinction as Rouhanifard had initially characterized the moves as “transformations.”

District officials said that selling or leasing of the properties to the charter operators is also still being considered.

In addition, Rouhanifard said public hearings were held last year when the first charter projects were approved and again this winter as the new plan was being considered.

“The misrepresentations and factual errors of interest groups will not distract us from the urgent cause of improving our schools,” he said in a statement. “With two out of five students not graduating from high school, it’s critical that we stay focused on improving the education of our children. We have remarkable students, but for far too long the system has come up short in providing them with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

“Over the past 18 months, I have listened to the concerns of parents from every school in Camden, at dozens of community meetings, and most recently, at four town halls,” Rouhanifard added. “I heard loudly and clearly that where our schools are struggling the most, we need to take action. These new renaissance school partnerships represent a real opportunity for us to dramatically invest in our facilities and provide new, high quality educational options for our students and families.”

The challenges to the restructuring were hardly unexpected in light of such sweeping changes and considering that two lawsuits have already been filed since the first of the renaissance-school plans were unveiled.

The first case ended when the state Legislature amended the law to address the complaint. The second lawsuit, lodged by a group of parent advocates, is pending in appellate court.

Rouhanifard is moving ahead with plans for the next school year – including door-to-door canvassing -- as the proposals go through the formal review process with state Department of Education.

In each case, the state needs to sign off on the specific applications for each school, and there is also a review process for when a school is closed.

But it would be surprising if the state rejected the plans, given that Rouhanifard is a state appointee whose every move has been backed by the Christie administration.

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